‘An English Murder’ is a classic English Country House Christmas Murder Mystery that gently debunks 1950s English upper-class manners and beliefs..
The murder mystery works fairly well. Set in s splendid country house with a small group of closely connected guests snowed in over Christmas, it offers dramatic death scenes. a rich pool of suspects, damsels (of different classes) in distress, and triggers an almost over-mastering impulse to shout, ‘the butler did it‘.
Who did it, how they did it and why they did it slowly become clear as the plot unwinds like a skein of tangled wool pulled at by a cat. I enjoyed trying (and failing) to work the thing out.
Cyril Hare uses this mystery to display and gently debunk some of the beliefs and practices of the English upper-class in 1950. Much of this debunking assumes knowledge of recent events in British politics. I945-1950 saw the first full-term Labour government. They had been elected with a massive majority and saw themselves as having a mandate for fundamental change. At the end of their first full term, in 1950, the Labour Party stayed in power but with only a two seat majority, having lost seventy-eight seats. When the government called another election in 1951, the year ‘An English Murder’ was published, the Labour Party lost to the Conservatives. Hare manages to field characters from across the political spectrum in his small Christmas house party.
I liked that Hare chose to use a foreigner, Dr Botwink, a German Professor of history, who is studying the papers of the seventeenth century Lord Warbeck, to hold up a mirror to the twentieth century English. Dr Botwink speaks excellent engiish and has a better grasp of logic and more detailed knowledge of English history, including the history of the family hosting him, than the English upper-class around him do. Dr Botwink who, as well as studying and teaching in Heidelberg and Prague, has spent some time in a German concentration camp, has a very un-English view on politics and is constantly trying to understand the nuances of what the English think of as ‘good form’.
At the beginning of the book set a few days before Christmas, Dr Botwink asks Briggs, the butler whether it is right for him to eat with the servants or with the guests who are coming for Christmas. He’s happy when Briggs tells him that he should eat with the guests. Then he learns that the son and heir of the present Lord Warbeck will be present and he tells Briggs that he would rather eat with the servants. The exchange that follows is the start of taking a look at the English from the outside. Dr Botwink explains himself to Briggs by saying that the son is:
‘…the president of this affair that calls itself the League of Liberty and Justice?’
‘I understand that to be the fact, sir.’
‘The League of Liberty and Justice, Briggs,’ said Dr Bottwink very clearly and deliberately, ‘is a Fascist organisation.’
‘Is that so, sir?’
‘You are not interested, Briggs?’
‘I have never been greatly interested in politics, sir.’
‘Oh, Briggs, Briggs,’ said the historian, shaking his head in regretful admiration, ‘if you only knew how fortunate you were to be able to say just that!’
I was amused to see that the current Lord Warbeck became a symbol for the plight of the aristocracy after World War II: passive, out of place and doomed. He is weak, bed-ridden and close to death. His decline mirrors that of the great houses who could no longer afford to staff or maintain their estates. His imminent demise raises the spectre of Death Duty which the Labour was using as a mechanism to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.
His brash and objectionable son and heir is used to show the flirtation of the English aristocracy with Fascism, although this case he seems to be driven less by political dogma and more from pique at his own loss of status. He’s shown as leading a small, furtive group who dress-up in special jumpers in secret and play at being patriots.
His uncle, the present Lord Warbeck’s brother, the Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, also ends up being the butt of humour. This man, who has a key role in creating a new, more egalitarian, socialist Britain is shown to have no grasp of economics (he thinks he doesn’t need it. He has chaps for that). We also learn that one of his dark, politically embarrassing, secrets is that while he often rode to hounds in his youth.
Then we have the women in the house party: the well-connected wife of a talented but Not-Our-Class-Darling Labour Junior Finance Minister who pushes her husband’s career too hard and talks too much and a bright should-have-been-married-by-now-and-becoming-rather-desperate-about-it young gentlewoman who seems prone to passivity.
The servant classes are represented by the Butler and his daughter and the Personal Protection agent from Scotland Yard who is accompanying the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was fascinating to watch these folks being torn between their old roles of unquestioning service and their awareness that that world was dying.
From the first death onwards, the Scotland Yard man is nominally in charge but clearly out of his depth. Meanwhile, Dr Botwink sets about solving the mystery as an act of self-preservation, reasoning that: 1. there is a murderer in the house and more murders may follow. 2. he is a foreigner and therefore the obvious person to take the blame.
I liked that the solution to the mystery required knowledge of an obscure piece of English law and a forgotten piece English history. I can imagine, that Cyril Hare, who was a County Court Judge when this book was published, saw this whole book as a sort of lawyerly joke. Still, it is a joke that is well told and which, eighty years later, still made me smile.